Yin Yoga is a complementary practice to more dynamic, or ‘yang’, activities, such as running, sports, vinyasa yoga, or just a hectic lifestyle.
Generally speaking, most styles of yoga are Yang: they use rhythmic, repetitive movements to strengthen and lengthen the muscles.
Yin Yoga is different: in Yin, we hold poses passively for long periods of time in order to place gentle stress on the deeper connective tissues in the body, or fascia. This releases tension and strengthens our ligaments and tendons.
This difference between Yin Yoga and Yang yoga is important; we need to work with Yang tissues in a Yang way and Yin tissues in a Yin way, otherwise there is potential for injury. Muscles can be safely worked very dynamically, but to work with ligaments and tendons we need to approach the body more passively.
During a Yin practice, your body might appear a lot less flexible than it usually does (at least at the beginning of a pose), because your muscles are not warmed up. It can be a good idea to remind yourself of this so you don’t just try and push yourself straight into your preconceived idea of how far you go in a particular pose. It doesn’t matter if, aesthetically-speaking, you don’t go as far. We don’t need the muscles to warm up and lengthen in Yin, because the muscles are not the target here – the deeper connective tissues are. If you can feel it, you’re doing it, regardless of whether your nose is to the floor or not.
What you should feel is a sort of dull, achy feeling. And when you’re coming out of the pose, you might feel a bit creaky or jelly-like. This is another difference between Yin and Yang bodywork – if you do an intense session at the gym, you might wake up the next morning and feel muscles soreness from the day before. But in Yin, the after-effect is instant. You’ll have that funny, woah-what-have-I-done-to-my-body feeling straight away. So be gentle and take time to come out of the pose.
Yin poses are held for anywhere between 3-20 minutes. If you want to deepen the intensity of your Yin practice, the way to do it is to hold the poses for longer, not to push more physically.
Sometimes it looks similar to Restorative Yoga, but it is a different practice. Yin yoga can certainly be relaxing but it also tends to take you right out of your comfort zone, both mentally and physically!
There are three main tenets to Yin:
Come into the pose to an appropriate depth
The appropriate depth is where you feel sensation at the target area – maybe a dull acheyness or gentle stress – but you don’t feel pain. Only you know where this point is. No teacher can tell you what your body is feeling. If at any time you do feel pain, either come back a little bit, or exit the pose entirely. Over the course of a 5-minute hold on a particular pose, you may find that your ‘appropriate depth’ changes, and you can go further into the pose. Similarly, you may also find it change in the other direction, and that you need to come back a bit. Stay aware in the experience, and adjust your position as needed.
Resolve to remain still
Well – as still as you can be! There’s nothing wrong with moving a little bit to get more comfortable, and of course if there is any pain and you need to move, you should move! But staying as still as you can will allow you to meditate while in the pose, potentially bringing on any or all of the following: A deep sense of calm and tranquility / Frustration that you can’t check your phone / A profound acceptance of who you really are / Ideas about what you’re going to have for dinner / Planning what you’re going to do tomorrow / Existential angst / Love and equanimity towards all sentient beings / Repeating an old conversation but with better come-backs / Inner peace. Just like normal meditation really, but in a funny position.
Hold the pose for time
The time is the key in Yin Yoga. You get into a pose, you think, ‘Oh, well this feels funny,’ or maybe, ‘This feels like nothing,’ and then 3 minutes later you feel like your body has entered a whole other world. Or (something I’ve experienced often), I feel very little for seven minutes in a twist, and then I come out of it, and I feel everything. Holding poses for such a long time, in a Yin-like way (i.e., not pushing, not forcing), allows for more stress to be placed on the deeper connective tissues, therefore making them stronger.
How long is too long? How short is too short? Only you can know. If discomfort, or mental anguish, is telling you to get out of the pose, try and stay in it. If physical pain is telling you to get out of the pose, then best to get out. The hard part is trying to differentiate between the two!
Yin is not a stand-alone practice. We use it to balance too much Yang energy. We need both!